Data & the Bible Online: Interview with Stephen Smith

Data & the Bible Online: Interview with Stephen Smith

In the following interview, the third in the series ‘Data & the Bible Online’ (see also first & second), Stephen Smith, Sr. Director of Digital Products at Bible Gateway, answers questions about his projects related to his website, openbible.info. In addition to crunching and visualising Bible data on his website, Stephen has contributed to Christianity Today on the same subject. In 2014, CT also ran a piece on “Hacking the Bible,” featuring some of Stephen’s more recent work.

1. Would you summarise your project(s) related to openbible.info

Openbible.info consists of a number of projects centered around the theme of Bible data. The most-popular part of the site is the topical Bible, which uses collective intelligence from around the web to identify Bible verses relevant to what people want to know. The site also indexes Twitter posts that mention Bible verses, and every year I categorize what people say they’re giving up for Lent on Twitter (chocolate, alcohol, and social networking tend to top the list).

2. What motivates you to exploit web technology for the purpose of collecting and interpreting biblical data?

The tagline of openbible.info is, “Remix Bible data.” It started in 2007 with my frustration that basic Bible data–at the time, geographical data–was largely unavailable. If I wanted to build a “Google Maps of the Bible,” in other words, I’d have to collect all the data myself. And that’s what I did so that future interested parties–especially coders–would have a wealth of data available to them. My hope was that they would be able to create much more interesting ideas than I would by freeing them from the drudgery of data collection.

In reality, few people care about data itself; they care about applications of the data, which means solving their problems with data-backed solutions. So while I still make data available under a free license, I’ve come to the conclusion that there has to be an immediate practical implementation, as well.

3. What are the more promising aspects of recent developments in technology as it relates to the Bible and/or biblical literacy?

Recent improvements in artificial intelligence (AI), especially around natural language processing, have opened up new possibilities for interacting with Bible text and the wealth of resources that surround it. Chatbots are one example, but even more interesting to me are the hyper-personalized content filtering of Google and Facebook. How should we apply AI to spiritual matters as such technology becomes more widely available?

A recent article about Microsoft said: “children aged 7-18 think of themselves as more creative and entrepreneurial than previous generations, Microsoft’s research showed. They’re constantly looking for ways to stand out in a society that almost demands they broadcast much of their lives and… expect seamlessness between real world and digital world.” Understanding how people, not just children, integrate the Bible into their digital and non-digital expressions of themselves, and finding new ways to enable self-expression, is now more possible than ever, for both good and ill. For instance, we can now quantify the kinds of prayers that people offer and the kinds of notes they write in the margins of their digital Bibles. Figuring out how toolmakers should respond to such data presents a fertile design opportunity unavailable to past generations.

4. What concerns do you have about technological developments as it relates to the Bible and/or biblical literacy?

If an artificial intelligence can understand you and your emotional, social, informational, and even spiritual needs–both short- and long-term–what are the implications for the church as an institution globally and locally? By building such powerful tools, tools that potentially obviate the need to talk with your pastor or your fellow Christians, are we attempting to build a digital Tower of Babel while trying to usurp the role of the Holy Spirit? We run the risk of putting so much faith in what we’ve built that we neglect the core of the faith we’ve received.

The Bible for the next billion believers will be digital-first and in many cases digital-only, which means grappling with a church that lacks a print tradition, or, as J. Mark Bertrand argues, with print Bibles serving certain uses and audiences while digital Bibles serve others. This print/digital bifurcation has many potential fault lines, not just generational ones, and we’ll have to see how it plays out.

5. What has most surprised you in working on these projects?

Starting with the ESV Bible API I helped implement in 2003, I’ve hoped that making Bible data more accessible would result in a flourishing of creative digital expressions around the Bible, but these expressions, with a few exceptions, haven’t materialized. I don’t feel that technology has fundamentally changed how people approach the Bible, only made existing practices more quantifiable. Even academically, aside from at Durham, it’s hard to find an academic program that emphasizes the theoretical or practical effects of digital culture on either theology or the practice of religion, which I feel is a huge gap in the formal education of future church leaders. It surprises me how little formal training there is on the subject, and I worry that we’re underdeveloping a theology that will be important to the church’s future.

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